In recent days and weeks, it has become commonplace for high-income media pundits to assert that the government expenditures required to resolve the financial crises facing the nation mean that "we can't afford" various things. Mostly what we are told "we can't afford" are proposals to address domestic priorities, including pressing human needs like access to health care, or long term issues like measures to forestall and reduce human-caused global warming and to redress the growing problems of infrastructure decay.
Now there are disappointing reports that Barack Obama has "acknowledged" that a bailout of big financial capital may prevent him from implementing the more progressive parts of his program for change.
Yet a huge category of unproductive spending has remained unmentioned or been treated as sacrosanct: our excessive military budget.
What we really can't afford: The open-ended commitment to a large U.S. presence in Iraq espoused by both John McCain and Barack Obama.
What we really can't afford: The escalation of U.S. military action in Afghanistan proposed by both John McCain and Barack Obama.
What we really can't afford: The risks of McCain's posture of aggression toward Iran, or those of military action in or against Pakistan proposed by both McCain and Obama.
What we really can't afford: The perpetuation of military spending that equals that of the entire rest of the world combined, much less the expanded military spending proposed by both Obama and McCain.
In short, the United States cannot afford to pretend that we have the economic strength to act as an imperial hegemon on a global scale. We should not act that way for other reasons as well, of course, but now the stakes include the question of whether we will allow militarism to drive us into the ground economically as well.
Should McCain be elected president, progressives doubtless will rally together to try to prevent the worst and riskiest excesses of his militarism. But that is not enough.
The record of Democratic Congressional leadership in allowing themselves to be rolled on military spending by Republicans is not good. If Democrats make the gains in Congress projected, we need to insist that they get us out of our wars of occupation and cut back on unsustainable, unproductive military spending in favor of productive domestic spending that will contribute to strenthening the economy. We need to start conveying that message to Congress now.
And we need to start pressing Barack Obama now, and even more importantly, prepare to press him much harder if he is elected, to change his military posture and spending plans. We cannot afford them.
The other thing we cannot afford is any approach to the financial crisis that will expand the long term national debt and the huge interest payments we make on it, which go to a combination of foreign governments, many of them at minimum not U.S. allies or not reliable ones, and to wealthy financiers and investors in big financial institutions. Rather, the financial crisis must be addressed in a way that ensures that in the medium run public spending to rescue big finance capital is repaid in full by that sector, including the interest on additional debt temporarily incurred in the bailout.